What Would You Do? – Part 3

 

 This was one of Dad’s stories that made me when I was small – probably made my brothers and my sister too:

Dad said: “We lived in North Carlton, where all the Jews lived. We were all poor. Even after the Depression, when we weren’t so poor we never forgot the poor times.

“My Father – your Papa – told us a story about King and Godfree. Papa went there once in, the hard times, to buy food.

The grocer said: What can I get you, Mr. Goldenberg?

Three pounds of potatoes, please Mr. King.

What else?

A pound of flour.

The grocer weighed the spuds and the flour.

What else, Mr. Goldenberg?

That’s all. Nothing else thanks.

That’s not enough, Mr.Goldenberg.

What do you mean?

You’ve got three sons, growing boys. They need milk, eggs.

No thanks Mr. King.

The grocer left the counter for a moment. He came back and placed a dozen eggs and a quart of milk on the counter.

Papa shook his head. No Mr. King, I won’t take those. I’ll take what I can pay for.

You take them now Mr. Goldenberg. You’ll pay for them when you can.

Papa never forgot that. From that day he always shopped at King and Godfree.”

What Would You Do – Part 2

I heard a story once, one of those stories that make you. A student driving his wreck along Toorak Road lost attention or lost his brakes and ran into the back of a larger car.  All attention now, he jumped out, preparing apologies.

The driver of the other car, an older man bore down on him:  “What happened son?”

The student fumbled for a voice, stumbled his explanation.

The older man seemed to be somewhere else. After a while he looked at the younger man’s car. He said: “ You’re not insured are you.”

“No.”

“You have any idea what a new panel costs for a Rolls?”

The student shook his head.

“More than you’ve got. More than you’ll have for a while. Am I right?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll tell you a story, son. I was your age once. I pranged a rich guy’s car. He said to me not to worry about it . He said to remember. He said one day I’d have the chance to do the same for someone else.”

The boy looked up, half unbelieving.

The man continued: ”Today you gave me my chance. Thank you.”

The older man turned to go. He opened his car door, stood for a moment, looked over his shoulder and said: “Remember, son.”

 

Rolls-Royce Corniche

Rolls-Royce Corniche (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What Would You Do?

A few minutes ago a man approached me in a city street. He secured eye contact, moved in close,  closer, a craft securing its mooring.

I’m on the streets.

A lined face, folds of loose dark skin, lightly whiskered, serious. I recognised the approach; he’d be after money. I felt in my pocket for the two dollar coin, a lazy two dollars.

I’m looking for money for a room for the night. I need forty nine dollars.

This was something new. The quantum, specified. It rang true.

We held each other’s gaze. The man neither shrank nor dramatised himself. He added, The room is booked. I need to find the money, and something for a feed, some laundry…

After a pause I asked – unaccountably – How much is the room?

Eighty-nine dollars. I’ve got the rest.

Two dollars felt too lazy. I found a large note, handed it over.

The man looked at the note: God bless you, mate.

Exultation is

Exultation is 

The going out

Of an inland soul

To sea

The train leaves Southern Cross right on time at 7.10. No queueing, No Security. No fumes.

The price of a cup of coffee at Southern Cross does not amaze the buyer nor does the drink disgrace the bean. (The cup is of paper; you can’t have everything.) Once aboard, no safety sermons, no-one forbidding standing or moving about the cabin, no weight limits, no serpentine lines of tired, tense travellers with toddlers to repress.

How old fashioned this iron caravan. The carriage rolls, moving in its jazz rhythms forwards, side to side, moving as it did in the rides of childhood, in those long slow rides across time, across the wide, dry land, singing clickclack past silent mobs of kangaroo, putting to flight soundless pink-grey clouds of galah, slipping past indifferent cows looking at me in philosophic enquiry, rolling past stands of eucalypt, no two gumtrees the same, every one the same – whether elegant, smooth and pastel, or scarred, twisted and greygreen – every gum tree declaring I am Australia, I survive, I thrive, I endure, every gumtree bearing, proffering vital knowings.

Only the cabinet has changed. Gone is the sign requesting passengers not to use the appliance while the train is standing at the platform. A press of a button, an airliner’s hiss, and everything disappears without trace.

The twenty-first century city, where they’ve gone about as far as they can go, the city, with its looming concrete overpasses, its car-teeming freeways and tollways, its roar and bustle, its gouging, its uprooting, its foetid air and gritty, its smoking and choking, its babel towers rising up to the heavens, its pavements grey; this great, enfolding and alarming home to millions and to me; this violence, this violation, this nature denying, this horizon hiding, this coded mute cry, this city slips away. And I ride.

The ride beguiles. It seduces. It invites nostalgic romancings of the past, endless retrogression, convenient forgettings of how railways were themselves violators of countryside, the out of control, accelerating agency of dangerous change.

The train to Albury accelerates, exhilirates into the green.

And for all that nostalgia is malignant – 

acceleration is/the going out/of an inland soul/to sea

Past the houses, past the headland/to deep eternity…  

A nod to Yeats, a filching from Paterson and a bow and apology to Emily Dickenson.

This Bog-post has been Sanitized and Sealed Hygienically for your Safety

A feature of three- and four-star accommodation is the ribbon of paper that bears the reassuring words above. Although in this case they are below.

As you lower yourself towards the annular shelf above the bowl you breathe the freshened air confident of your safety, more confident than in your own home, where no-one issues certificates of hygiene.

The unspeakable dangers we face from uncertified bowls are – it goes without saying – unspoken.  And unsaid. The dangers are so great someone must break the silence: as a health scientist I accept the responsibility.  I will speak out.

Do not be misled by your visual inspection of the bright waters. Have you sniffed them? Have you tasted a sample? I thought not. The transmitters of the unspoken lavatory dangers are, it happens, transparent: you look right through them and you do not see.

Clear water has been a known hazard for many years. To the day of her death, one day short of ninety-two years, my late mother refused to drink water. Don’t drink water – fish fuck in it – someone advised Mum.  And she never did. (Long before Science spoke thus to Mum, her native canniness guided her, that same wisdom that saw her breakfast for decades on toast with clotted cream. Mum recognised her comestible enemies and she shunned them: she had been frightened by a vegetable once in childhood and she never came near one again.)

The hazard that no-one mentions is the miasma, the unseen vapour of the hydroptic sewer. The innocent excretor takes a seat; the nether eye (as Chaucer terms it) surveys all, sees nought, winks and closes. At this point you relax and breathe out. And, it may be, your bottom too sighs, perhaps barks, but in some way or another, breathes out. What if that sphincter were now to breathe in! Whose lurking anal breath, bearing what malign bacterium, might invade with that indraft?

Have you, by chance, any knowledge of the clostridium? Happy – blessed – is she who knows nothing of this bum-residing pathogen. Google at your peril: clostridia are the Macbeth of the bowel: Sleep no more, Macbeth doth murder sleep.

Make no mistake, the hazards are real. Take the example of my close friend Nicodemus. On a recent trip to a small country town Nick and children booked in at the local motel that claimed, I believe, one star. At the end of a tiring day the family repaired to their sleeping quarters where they found freshly made up beds, all spread with a fabric we used to call candlewick. On Nick’s candlewick, he found a small but genuine human stool. These premises were not protected by the Seal of Sanitary Hygiene.

So how must we approach the dangers of the bathroom fittings of our own homes – how do we make our loved ones, our tender little ones, (or our tender large ones – depending upon how we are hung) safe? I have the answer, the solution, the rescue remedy: on my last visit to three-four star accommodation, I secreted within my clothing the strip certificate of the Sanitary Hygiene and Safety of caromatic appliance. I took it home and I attached it to this post.

I believe the text to be out of Copyright.

Thus readers may find and reprint this sacred tract, the Trinitarian Promise, and deploy copies on their own toilet seats.

And abide there in peace.

 

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The Reunion

We met in the grounds of our old school. Cars drew up, old faces emerged, old bodies, sagging here and there, supported by stiffening joints. Faces lit in recognition or knitted in puzzlement – I can’t place you – then opened upon discovery. Older faces, stiffer frames – these were teachers, old and treasured. The pleasure was of a novel sort: it was as if one discovered an aged aunt or uncle not seen for fifty years; and the aged one was as delighted we were at the encounter.
Fifty years. A large chunk of time in anyone’s lifetime, an epoch unimaginable when we left in 1963.
We toured the school, the new and the old. The dunnies hadn’t changed except they were clean.
Afterwards we gathered in the dining hall.
I volunteered to speak about the lost eleven of our classmates. I didn’t want the ninety survivors of the class of 1963 to bee-suck on nostalgia and leave the dead unsung. So I read the following:

Here we are fifty years on.
We have become, I realise, walking memorials to those we have lost.
We travel the roads and the paths of our lives and our minds register: Aunty Sylvie lived in this street…Dennis used to walk his dog in this park…that’s the Shule Dad and his bothers walked to when they were kids…this is the street where my grandparents lived…

Now, gathered here at Scopus again, in this dining hall, beneath this roof, shadows of old friends, old rivals, flash across memory. Teachers we loathed, teachers we revered, those we mocked, those we feared, all move across the mind in their chalky academic gowns. They lived, they did their work and they passed on. And we – we who were once seventeen, eighteen years old and full of wonder about the future – we approach threescore years and ten, full of amazement about the years past.

But we have left some behind. I name them now.

Manny Olian, dead in 1964.
Faye Broons, dead only a few years later – in 1971.
Ephraim Bergner – died early – I haven’t been able to track down the year.
Leon Fust and Suzanne Gescheit in 2006;
Miriam Hamer, Norman Stern, Shareen Fremder – all in 2007;
Joe Serwetarz in 2008.
Zelda Slonim in 2009.
Michael Kowadlo, just over a year ago, in 2012.

The names are the bones. Some I can clothe in the flesh of concrete recollection.

Manny Olian.
Many memories, warm, smiling memories of a thin, manically funny boy, a stranger to malice, a friend who stood out from our glorious contemporaries for his originality of mind. Manny was the source of extraordinary insights that always astonished me. I see Manny holding a pen, grabbing a footy, his fingers spidering, hyperextending, exclamation marks at the extremities of a boy at the extreme.
Manny was a pioneer in death by drugs. During a trip on LSD, Manny stepped off a cliff in England and died.

In my imaginings I see Manny’s parents in 1946, at the time of his birth. They look upon their firstborn and they choose a name. The parents see their child before them and put the unspeakable past behind them. They called him Menachem, “comfort”. Eighteen years later, in 1964 – what comfort do they find?

Fay Broons.
I hardly knew Fay. I wonder how many did know her. Pretty, quiet, shy, ladylike, almost ephemeral at school, Fay was a mother of three little kids by 1971. She started the last weekend of her life in good health and was dead 48 hours later – of fulminating infection, or a brain haemorrhage? – even her family does not know to this day.

Ephraim Bergner.
Ephraim, Effy – that gifted, creative, wild child. Those fabulous good looks, that innocent disconnect from the rules, from the mundane, from consequences.
Our class’s James Dean.
Who was surprised that Ephraim’s life ended early?
Only the exact year, and the precise drug escape me.
What shadows, what secrets, what ghosts, was Ephraim escaping?

Leon Fust, skinny, nimble, fearless on the footy field, subtle and gentle in his thought; I last saw him in an Australian bank in Piccadilly, in an impeccable suit and a bowler. Leon looked the epitome of an English gentleman.
Never sighted again, what did Leon die of? Whom did he leave to mourn him?

Sue Gescheit, her kidneys failing after decades fighting off her viciously severe diabetes; Miriam Hamer, marrying for the first time at sixty, marrying for love, knowing her lung cancer had already spread to her brain; Norman Stern, one so jovial, often an innocent magnet for mischance, Norman, whom I had not sighted since school; he and Joe Serwetarz – the tall, the gregarious, the good looking, athlete – both of them, following just before or soon after Miriam and Sue.

Zelda Slonim – I think I knew her. Did I know her?

Shareen Fremder – I’m sure I didn’t know Shareen.

What does it mean that one passes and passes unknown?
Who knows? Who mourns?
Who carries their memory?

Finally, Michael Kowadlo, passing in 2012.

My first memory of Scopus is of Michael. This big friendly kid takes this very lost, very strange new kid –Howard Someone – from the country! – under his wing.
A week or so later I am climbing the steps of the slide when a bunch of interlopers races up the steps, pushing me aside. My face collides with the steel rail, a tooth chips, my mouth fills with blood and Michael, Big Michael, steps in and pushes the interlopers away. I take my turn and slide down. I meet and enrich a dentist. I become closest of friends with the principal slide aggressor – great to see you again Tommy – and Michael becomes a dentist.
The last 100 times I saw Michael occurred when we both spent a year reciting kaddish in memory of loved ones.

I want to recite kaddish now, and I invite everyone to stand and join with me, in memory of all our lost friends. In memory of Manny – “after the first death there is no other’’, as Dylan Thomas reminds us – in memory of youth, in memory – and in forgiveness – of our lost selves…

Yitgadal ve’yitkaddash sh’mei rabah…

***

After I delivered that sombre material, my voice dying at the end, I looked up. Fifty serious faces looked down. My schoolmates, silent for the first time in our twelve school years and in the following fifty years, did not meet my gaze. Gone was the buzz, the gaiety of moments ago. I had spoiled our evening. Or so I feared.

Mount Scopus College was born in Melbourne just after the end of the War. Fiercely partisan community leaders in their congregations and their factions came to historic agreement to bury difference and to create a school. The compromise they made was without precedent or subsequent. The leaders, the secular with the devout, the Yiddishists with the Hebraists, the political with the cultural, agreed on one thing: this ragged remnant of Jewry must educate its children if Jewry were to survive. So Mount Scopus was born at the same historic moment that we, the class of ’63, were born.
What did we know of the Shoah, what did we learn? Precious little at Scopus, only dark and unspoken shapes and silences from our parents. We did not realize until later that ours was a generation without grandparents.
Our Jewish teachers, burning with an intensity that burned us, cared unaccountably that we learn, that we incorporate the burden of their scholarship; while we, dull and distractible, remained unforgivably innocent, even indifferent to the heritage they were transplanting. Only in Rabbi Schwartz was truth writ clear in the body: his throat, a terrible terrain of wound and scar, remained red and swollen these years later. Somehow we all knew – the Nazis had pulled out his beard.
We are the result, their fruits, this class of 67-year olds, gathered again in the old Scopus dining hall that was also assembly hall and concert hall and community banquet room. Was I the only one to gaze about the room and to marvel at the achievement of Scopus, at the fruits of our parents’ sacrifice? The room crawled with professors, with doctors a dime a dozen, with lawyers, teachers, psychologists, with businesswomen, artists, computer greats. I could see how middle-of-the-roaders in our Scopus class rose to enduring distinction in the wider world. Truly the fires of the fathers had kindled huge drive in the children. Starved parents raised a generation hungry for success. We took our opportunities. Some seized the future, becoming pioneers and creators. We flamed, we made our mark.
Most of us had married Jews and produced Jews. Many of us had sent our kids to Mount Scopus. Making the real sacrifices needed for this costly schooling we endorsed the vision of the founders. Some of us had grandchildren at Scopus.

***

The class of ’63 has been decimated in two quite different ways – one in ten has died; one in ten has emigrated, made aliya – literally ascended – to Israel. Of these latter, three classmates have journeyed here solely for this occasion. It is a long and costly trip; why have they come? Why have others travelled from Western Australia and Queensland? Why have the remaining fifty-odd Melbourne residents bothered?
In the course of our four hours together clusters form and drift. Old intimates greet each other but do not linger, instead moving on to find others less known, less loved. A genuine thirst for connection, a tenderness, a respect – the things we all needed and often begrudged in those rougher days.
In place of the empty phrases of everyday greeting, men and women shake, hug, regard; they take in faces that have ripened and withered and deepened; they see and they don’t need to ask; the face of the other is the face they see in the mirror, a face stricken, blessed, stripped by the years. No-one is measuring, no-one comparing: that which we are, we are…

Four hours, equivalent to half a school day, long enough to discover

Equally interesting to me: why have others chosen not to come?
Two, I know, are disabled by mental illness. A third, with whom I am closer now than fifty years ago, told me she could not imagine a more distressing experience than to return to the terrain and personnel of her schoolday trauma. Having rebuilt herself from her remains, she has retreated to another state where she rusticates and has some peace. She begged me not to press her to come. She forbade me to explain. The committee was to erase her contact information. This friend would be astonished to know how many missed her, how many wondered aloud about her. In the face of this goodwill it was difficult for me to hold my peace. I fed friends scraps: She’s doing well…she couldn’t make it…
In the course of the reunion, another – likewise closer in adult life than in school days – turned up unannounced and stood at the rear, listening to the few speeches. The longest speech was my elegy for the lost. Upon completion of kaddish my friend turned and left in silence.
Not everyone won academic laurels. Not everyone had a stellar career. Some of those present at the reunion, vibrantly present, knew their unsuccess didn’t signify. As we toured the school, one removed his adhesive lapel tag and placed it between the names on the Honour Board. There he was, Dux of Mount Scopus College, now, after fifty years. There he was among us, huge in his mirth and delight.
There would be some who decided not to attend, conscious of ‘failure’ – in career, in material status, in family – unaware that no-one measures any more, no-one judges. We missed them.

***

What is the measure of the years? After fifty years what does it mean? I imagine the survivor of the Shoah washing up on this godforsaken Jewish wilderness, this godspared paradise, looking around, looking forward, never backwards, no never back to those places, those times. He stands, he mates with another survivor. Together they work, they scrape, they venture, they struggle and persist. They raise a generation, often of one only child – the previous children lost, burned – they find the tuition fees, they send the child to Scopus…

The Scopus of today dazzles. I venture to suggest there exist university campuses in Australia which would envy the facilities and the faculty of this school.

In all the vivacity of this evening, the buzz, the energy of this still radiant class of ‘63, in all the softening, the love, there abides among us grandparents the uneasy understanding that a Scopus education is beyond the means of many of our children to provide. Some of my contemporaries, I know, quietly pay their grandkids’ fees. Others work for the school, raising funds for scholarships and bursaries.

What would the founders say? Would they count Scopus a success if the rising generation were locked out?

Toujours Gai

MELBOURNE SPRING RACING MEETING - RACE FOR THE...

MELBOURNE SPRING RACING MEETING – RACE FOR THE MELBOURNE CUP (Photo credit: State Library of Victoria Collections)

 

Dom Marquis wrote Archie and Mehitabel, Faber and Faber published it, and when I first read it (in my teens) the book cheered me immensely. Fifty years later it still does.

 

Mehitabel, a once-attractive cat-on-the-tiles has fallen upon hard times. In 1960 one could get away with calling her a clapped out old whore. Now we would categorise her as a superannuated sex worker. And miss the point. Although the times are tough, Mehitabel claims she remains cheerful: toujours gai, Archie, toujours gai.

 

 

 

For gaiety we humans have the racing game. From Cup to Cup a nation in its cups loves a winner. Memories of breaches of trust have no currency. The past? – another country. Our crooks, our own, they’re OK.  So long as the offender isn’t an oriental, an emir, a sheikh.

 

The trainer Tommy Smith was a winner, his daughter is another, his bookie son-in-law Robbie is a winner. So too are the bookie grandson and the jockey Damien, a non-dynast.

 

Toujours gai  we head off to the races, to the TAB, to the gambling sites and we invest. Mug punters all, a nation toujours gai, we surrender to the winners. Our screens and our papers salute the winners. Lipstick, champagne, heels, joie, winning is the theme. There is no other.

 

In the carnival of innocent joie Damien speaks of his redemption – I did the crime, I served my time – and, unblinking, a stopped nation knows the game’s all clean now. Gai was fined, remains unrepentant, defiantly innocent. Clean.  She faces fresh charges (allegedly committed on the very day she became The Winner). These stir no reflection, no recollection. The stewards offend the mood. They are churls, wowsers. Singo forgives Gai; who are we, in all this due process, this penitence, this righteousness, who are we to question, to misgive? Cheer up, pay up, drink up. In all this joie, we must look to Mehitabel and remain toujours gai.